My Great-Grandfather, Samuel, was a furrier, who made coats of only the finest mink, sable and seal. (Yep – back then they did that.) His motto was, “Measure twice, cut only once.” For a furrier, there were no second chances when you cut a skin, so for him, this motto was a practical idea but for me as I developed my writing method, The Horowitz System®, the homily became the inspiration for a better type of writing preparation. I have been among other things, a private writing coach for fifteen years and worked on hundreds of TV and movie scripts, novels, plays and non-fiction.
The curses for a coach are the endless iterations that most writers feel are necessary. While rewriting is an essential part of the process, we don’t necessarily know exactly why we are doing it, so I have attempted to answer that question. My system allows the writer to complete a work in five drafts or less. This may sound like a lot to non-writers, but to writers this is efficient. In the method, the first draft is to let the story get on paper, the second is attempting to raise the stakes to the highest crisis point possible, the third is structuring the events to please an audience, and the final two are about the words on the page. To become professional, a method is essential.
To continue the metaphor of making a fine fur coat, Samuel first prepared the skins -- a similar process to the development of character and plot -- and then designed the coat. He first made a pattern, but before he cut the pelts, he measured the furs a SECOND TIME as if he had never seen them, and then made a second pattern in response to the quirks revealed in this closer exam. Then and only then did he cut the fur. So that’s how he measured twice and cut once.
There are two important ideas here:
First, you must allow form to follow function – that is, let your characters shape the plot of your story based on their abilities and flaws. Because Samuel was wise enough to allow the skins to determine the shape of the coat instead of forcing them to fit a pre-conceived design, he was able to complete the work quickly and efficiently because there was no conflict between the form (the structure) and the substance (characters and plot). If we apply this concept to screenwriting, you would always understand the unique qualities of your characters BEFORE you put them into a rigid plot.
The second important idea is that taking a second look at your material before you write it will save a lot of time. In Samuel’s case, he was looking for quirks and problems in the skins. In our case, we are looking to create as much conflict and as many problems for the characters as is organic to the story. For example, a screenwriter came to me with a great story about an intergalactic hunter who must confront an old enemy who seeks to destroy Earth. The only problem with the script was that the writer had stopped one or two steps short of the maximum crisis – the bad guys never came after the hunter himself. This flaw in the story would have been easily found if the writer had done a second outline. Instead of now having to completely restructure the screenplay, the first draft could have been much closer to the final story.
Here’s the exercise:
Step 1. Take your current project. If it’s in the outline stage, great, and if you’re already writing it, you can use the current outline you have. If you haven’t yet made one, I suggest that you do so. Some styles of outline are better than others, and perhaps I will write my next tip about that, but for now, whatever you have will do.
Step 2. Revisit all of your preparatory material, and create a new outline without referring to your current one. In this second outline, please try to push the conflicts to their furthest limits, while factoring in the details of your main characters.
Step 3. Put the outlines away for a while, and try to forget about them.
Step 4. Review both outlines, make adjustments and get back to work.
You may find that by “measuring twice,” you can cut your rewriting time down because you conceived the story correctly in the first place, and I am sure you will write a fine – fur coat, I mean screenplay!